'Nova, St. Joe's, UConn and what might have been

Posted: April 10, 2014

At the time, James Bell suggested on Twitter, it was just saying the right thing in the moment, a few polite words. Walking off the court after Connecticut had taken Villanova out of the NCAA tournament, the 'Nova senior said to UConn guard Shabazz Napier, "Win it all."

Late Monday night, Bell tweeted out, "I'm fine with losing to them now cuz they did !! !!"

UConn, of course, also took out St. Joseph's in overtime before beating Villanova, after trailing both by double digits. This time, the road to the NCAA championship really did run through, or over, Philly. (Driving to Dallas, or claiming to, UConn's mascot stopped and tweeted photos from the campuses of both St. Joe's and Villanova.)

Nobody came closer to UConn than the Hawks. Nobody else took the Huskies to overtime, and led throughout the final minutes of regulation. Phil Martelli said he was "almost numb" sitting in the stands at AT&T Stadium, watching the title game unfold.

"As it became kind of evident that they were going to get there, they were going to get to the finish line," Martelli said, he couldn't help but think of what Hawks fans were thinking everywhere, how close the Hawks had come to fashioning an alternative history of this tournament.

What Martelli was not necessarily thinking: "Could have been us." Nobody knows how a Villanova-St. Joe's game would have played out if the Hawks had advanced, or what would have happened next for the survivor against Iowa State or Michigan State.

Villanova has been through this before. For a remarkable fifth time in the last decade, the Wildcats lost to the eventual national champ. (Previously: 2005, North Carolina, Sweet 16; 2006, Florida, Elite Eight; 2008, Kansas, Sweet 16; 2009, North Carolina, national semifinal).

Watching the team that took you out, is it kind of a mixture of pride and . . . damn?

"That's exactly what it is," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I don't know if it's pride; it's kind of like vindication. We felt like we should have won that game. That's not fair to say. We felt we were good enough to win that game. We didn't play well enough. You feel disappointed in your performance. You say, 'Damn . . . that could be us.' "

Wright listened to Kentucky coach John Calipari talking about the Wildcats' having their chances, and missing shots, and really missing their free throws, and he thought it sounded familiar.

"There's got to be something that UConn does that gets you," Wright said.

He had clues, of course, pointing out that guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright may not be 6-foot-5, but "they have extremely long arms and they are extremely athletic. Did you see the way Napier got to some of those rebounds in a crowd?"

And UConn's making free throws has been a staple of its season. In two victories over Temple, Napier made a combined 15 of 15 foul shots. That foul-shooting prowess even had a Big Five connection. A Yahoo.com story noted that it was former Penn coach Glen Miller, now a Huskies assistant, who brought Ollie a tape of how Steve Nash incorporated free throws into his workout. UConn did the same. They believe it helped.

Martelli said he thought UConn played better in later games than it had against his team. He noted Huskies players said they were nervous for the first round after not playing in the tournament last season.

"I thought, could it have been one play?" Martelli said of their matchup. "That's too simplistic."

Wright wasn't surprised to hear what Bell told Napier. Napier and St. Joe's guard Langston Galloway had a similar exchange right afterward. Wright noted that right after NCAA games, speaking of players, "you're humbled, for just that second. There's a deep respect, as a warrior. It only happens right after the game. It goes away, because you start to get a little mad, or you feel better. Back in the locker room, you have to be macho."

What stays, Wright said, is "you do want the team that beat you to win it."

Thinking of that alternative history, Martelli said of UConn: "They could have well been home working on individual instruction for their returning players. Instead, there are now parades and nets and White House visits."


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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